GABRIEL Agbonlahor's first Premier League goal of the season was enough to see off shot-shy Sunderland as Aston Villa ruined former boss Martin O'Neill's day.
The striker fired home from close range 12 minutes after the break to claim just a second league victory of the season for the midlanders on an afternoon when the Black Cats mustered only a single notable effort on target, and that six minutes from time.
It was no more than Villa, who headed north without former Sunderland striker Darren Bent, deserved after turning in a display which belied their lowly position with striker Christian Benteke bullying the home defence and Barry Bannan enjoying plenty of space in midfield.
But where the visitors were dynamic, their hosts once again laboured with dangerman Steven Fletcher effectively shackled as Adam Johnson, Sebastian Larsson and Stephane Sessegnon failed to provide meaningful service for long periods.
The response from the locals among a crowd of 41,515 on the final whistle was predictable with O'Neill's men having now won just one of their last 17 league games.
Those who turned up at the Stadium of Light did so hardly expecting a classic with neither side going into the game with any great confidence.
Sunderland's midweek Capital One Cup exit at the hands of npower Championship Middlesbrough provided further ammunition for those unhappy with a toothless run of form in the league, while Villa's paltry return of just six points before kick-off told its own story.
But it was the visitors who enjoyed the better of an opening 45 minutes which did little to disabuse the spectators of their misgivings.
The Black Cats had the ball in the net after just five minutes when Fletcher, the only Sunderland player to have scored a league goal so far this season, lifted the ball over the advancing Brad Guzan from Sessegnon's through-ball, although he did so from an offside position.
But from that point onwards, the visitors settled and largely dominated possession with Bannan and Ashley Westwood making the most of the space they were afforded in the middle of the field to bring the pacy Agbonlahor and the combative Benteke into play.
The Belgium international headed a 13th minute Bannan corner over and then looped another into compatriot Simon Mignolet's hands nine minutes later.
In the meantime, Mignolet was well protected by full-back Phil Bardsley, who dived in to block Agbonlahor's 18th minute shot after Benteke had headed down substitute Eric Lichaj's cross.
The home side had gone into the game having mustered only 12 efforts on target all season, and they could not improve on that damning statistic as Craig Gardner dragged a 24th minute effort wide and Ciaran Clark blocked Sessegnon's shot after the Benin international had exchanged passes with Johnson.
However, they might have taken the lead on the half hour when Sessegnon picked out Johnson wide on the right and he pulled the ball back for Lee Cattermole to curl a shot just over with keeper Guzan rooted to the spot.
Mignolet had to get down well at his near post to turn away Andreas Weimann's 38th minute strike, but Larsson might have done better a minute before the break when he fired across the face of goal from a promising position.
Even Fletcher was unable to trouble Guzan when, three minutes after the restart, he turned neatly and made his way to goal before slicing a 30-yard effort well wide.
There was at least a greater sense of urgency from Sunderland as the second half unfolded, and Larsson headed over after reacting smartly when Guzan only just got his fingertips to Bardsley's 53rd minute cross.
But it was Villa who took the lead four minutes later as Benteke once again climbed high above Bardsley at the far post to knock down Matt Lowton's right wing cross into the six-yard box and Agbonlahor pounced ahead of Carlos Cuellar to volley into the roof of the net.
O'Neill looked to inject fresh impetus into his team when he sent on James McClean and Louis Saha for Gardner and Sessegnon with 23 minutes remaining, and the Frenchman went close within six minutes wen he got to Larsson's free-kick ahead of Guzan, but headed just over the crossbar.
However, Mignolet kept the Black Cats in the game with a 76th minute save from Weimann after Stephen Ireland had found space on the right to set him up.
Cattermole came close to snatching a point when he took aim from distance with 84 minutes gone, but Guzan, who was initially wrong-footed, saved at the second attempt to ensure his side left Wearside with the points despite substitute Fraizer Campbell heading just wide in injury time.